For Michael Tisserand, as for most of us, the love of comics came early in childhood.
His mother took him to the library, where he discovered 741.59, the beloved Dewey Decimal System classification where comics were shelved. Years later, during his post-Katrina exile in Chicago, Tisserand would take his own young son to an exhibit of comics at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
“I was carrying my son in my arms then — he’s 6'-4" now — and reading the captions out loud. I was feeling the New Orleans exile at that point, and I could imagine the way Herriman felt as a 10 year-old in Los Angeles, and I was looking for a New Orleans story. This was a story about New Orleans that I could tell from Chicago.”
Now, years after chasing the story across the country, Tisserand has produced the first full-length biography of a great New Orleans character and an original American artist in “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White” (HarperCollins, $35).
Herriman (1880-1944) was born in New Orleans to a Creole family, free people of color who moved to California in search of better educational opportunities. There, Herriman began to pass as white, which he did for the rest of his life.
How he worked out complex issues — in both a social and personal sense — in his elegant comics is the story of “Krazy.” In Tisserand’s capable hands, it becomes a history of an American art form, eerily prescient in its exploration of racial and sexual ambiguity, complicated in its artistic value and rich in its linguistic context. More than anything, “Krazy” is a chronicle of a man who looked at the world and made it his.
“Krazy” is also a story of American newspapers in the days of Hearst and Pulitzer (Herriman was one of the artists to appear on the first dedicated comics page in 1912 and Hearst was a fan).
Even beyond that, this is a story of the history of American entertainment, from sports to film; Herriman also worked for a time at Hal Roach studios. His stamp is everywhere in the culture, for Krazy Kat inspired everyone from Jack Kerouac to Charles Schulz.
Tisserand tells a big story and a compelling one. Equally spellbinding is the deeply personal portrait of a man with a secret — and a man who had many friends, loved his family, endured his share of tragedy but kept, as Tisserand puts it, “his sense of wonder and delight.”
Tisserand followed Herriman’s footsteps across America. He spent eye-straining hours looking at microfiche at the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, visited the Los Angeles Courthouse and the archdiocesan records and notarial archives in New Orleans, searching out public records.
He traveled to Coney Island and sought out what was left of New York’s newspaper row. He spent time in Arizona, where Herriman had friends and a vacation home in Coconino County — the inspiration for his strip’s background — and visited Monument Valley.
One memorable night, the owner of Herriman’s family home in the Hollywood Hills agreed to host Tisserand, along with Herriman’s granddaughter, Dee Cox.
“I felt very close to him there, talking with her, seeing where he would put his drawing table,” Tisserand said. “And in New Orleans, I felt his presence in Treme and in St. Augustine Church, and in a coffee shop on Villere Street.”
Tisserand said he does think Herriman paid a price for passing as white in his isolation from his family, and he doubts that even Herriman’s wife knew that he was of mixed race.
“There’s a lack of completion around his early childhood,” Tisserand said. “If Herriman had maintained that rich family network in New Orleans as he grew up, I can’t imagine the cultural and emotional riches it would have brought him, the feeling of social standing.”
“If there’s a through line in what I write,” he said, “it’s lightly drawn. But I think I’m inspired by people who are faced with a difficult situation and make something beautiful.”
Tisserand, like his subject, is a bit of a New Orleans character himself. He is the former editor of Gambit, the author of “The Kingdom of Zydeco,” which has just been reissued in a new paperback edition with a foreword by Buckwheat Zydeco, and the author of “Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember.”
He’s also the founder of the New Orleans Chess Festival and delights in his Mardi Gras tradition as a member of the Krewe of Laissez Boys, the easy-chair riders.
Tisserand and his subject share a wicked sense of humor, charmed and amused by the world and the unfolding human story. It’s easy to imagine the ghost of George Herriman laughing as he watches his biographer roll down St. Charles Avenue in a leopard-print recliner. No doubt he would tip his elegant hat, a nod from one great New Orleans storyteller to another.
Michael Tisserand signs “Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White”
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St.